May 3, 2017
Writers denounce the New York Times’ decision to hire Bret Stephens
by Kait Howard
While the widespread anger over the New York Times’ decision to add Bret Stephens to their roster of op-ed writers has focused on his troubling views on a number of issues, it’s his deeply worrisome skepticism about climate change that has provoked the greatest backlash. It’s not surprising, then, that Stephens did a bit of hedging in his first column, published April 28, using what Harvard science professor and climate activist Naomi Oreskes called a “familiar strategy from the skeptical playbook: misdirection.”
But the outrage over the hire is only strengthening. This week, a group of prominent writers penned an open letter to the Times, published by Literary Hub, in which they they assert that the “intellectual dishonesty” that underpins Stephens’s claims contradicts “the central mission of the New York Times.” They write:
In columns for the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Stephens has baselessly claimed that the abundance of evidence for global warming has been “debunked”; that climate change is an “imaginary problem”; and that those who accept the scientific evidence of climate change are akin to totalitarians, anti-Semites, and Communists.
Stephens has indeed compared “global warming true believers” to “closet Stalinists.” He has also described communist indoctrination in Stalinist Russia, as depicted in Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind, to try to explain the willingness of many of his fellow conservatives to accept Trump’s distain for facts.
As Oreskes pointed out in a Letter to the Editor at the Times, Stephens’s first NYT op-ed—which happened to lead with an epigraph from Milosz—was a simplistic and shoddily argued comparison of the Clinton campaign’s denial of the precarity of their situation to climate advocates’ belief in the scientific consensus on climate change (he implies that because the Clinton campaign had inaccurate data, we shouldn’t be so sure about climate data).
It’s valid to question whether there’s any use in a group of mostly fiction writers weighing in on issues somewhat outside their realm (journalism and science). Still, the letter, signed by, among others, Rivka Galchen, Sarah Gerard, Joseph O’Neill, and Ramona Ausubel, sounds the right notes, engaging with a question Stephens himself has addressed in his own twisted way: the difference between partisan opinion and a willful acceptance of mistruth. As the letter notes:
Stephens is not just a “conservative voice.” An honest conservative voice may argue about what policies ought or ought not to be implemented in response to climate change. He is in fundamental respects an opponent of truth.
Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.